While President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un meet in Vietnam to negotiate a de-escalation of nuclear tensions, Capitol Hill is focused on the latest bout of political theater. The world’s hotspots might be going through permanent alterations in the next 24 hours, but legislators are too busy navel-gazing to notice.
This morning was the first hearing of the House Oversight Committee since the Democratic Party won back the House of Representatives in the midterms. “The American people voted for accountability in November,” declared Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), before settling in what turned out to be an extremely contentious hearing that lasted most of the day.
The star of the hearing of course was Michael Cohen, employed as Trump’s personal lawyer for a decade until last year. During the past, consequential nine months, Cohen pleaded guilty and was convicted of campaign finance violations, fraud, and lying to Congress while testifying in 2017. He’s scheduled to report to prison in May for a three-year sentence.
The purpose of his re-testifying today was to speak about his relationship with Trump. Although he previously said that he’d “rather jump out of a building” than turn on his former boss, this morning he did just that.
It was only seconds before fireworks went off between committee members. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) immediately asked to postpone the hearing, accusing Cohen of intentionally withholding his written testimony so that Republicans would not have enough time to prepare questions. According to Meadows, this was part of a pattern of behavior from Cohen, showing disdain for the congressional body. The motion was tabled by a party-line vote, and a partisan taint would define the rest of the hearing.
In his opening statement, Cummings said it was a legitimate to ask whether Cohen’s testimony could be trusted, since he’s admitted to lying in the past to protect the president. But it was the committee’s job to listen to Cohen and find the truth. “The American people can judge his credibility on their own,” Cummings said.
The ranking member, Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), let loose a barrage against Cohen. Jordan, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and a conservative attack dog, recently lost a vote for House Minority Leader. “Certainly it’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness,” he said. According to Jordan, the whole proceeding was influenced by billionaire Tom Steyer’s campaign to impeach the president.
“He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Cohen said of Trump. While his words were blistering, the rest of Cohen’s testimony fell short of what Democrats were hoping for.
Cohen apologized profusely throughout the hearing for lying to Congress, claiming that it was not representative of his character. “The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump. Today I am here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump,” he said. But on the president’s personal involvement, Cohen made clear that Trump had not directly told him to lie to Congress. “In his way he was telling me to lie,” Cohen said, which doesn’t change the facts.
Likewise, Cohen had nothing to add about the alleged conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions,” he said. Suspicions of a perjured former lawyer notwithstanding, Cohen has nothing of value to add to the Mueller investigation.
What Cohen did claim was that during the campaign, Trump was aware that long-time confidant Roger Stone was communicating with Julian Assange and coordinating the release of documents by Wikileaks. “Anybody who believes Julian Assange was able to phone Roger Stone from inside Ecuadorian Embassy with neither GCHQ, NSA, CIA, MI5 or FBI intercepting the call, is severely deluded,” reads part of a tweet from British diplomat Craig Murray. Murray, an associate of Assange’s, has cast aspersions on the idea that Russia was behind the DNC email leak or that the Russians were Wikileaks’ source of the emails. The special prosecutor’s indictment of Stone in January made no mention of calls with Assange, and the allegation remains unproven.
Furthermore, Cohen claimed that Trump was aware that Wikileaks was going to dump sensitive campaign material before it happened. As Congressman Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) pointed out, everyone had advanced knowledge. Assange had tweeted about it beforehand.
The testimony would not have been complete without the requisite accusations of racism. According to Cohen, Trump had made several racist comments in his presence over the years, including that “he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.” Meadows interrogated him about these comments, making it clear that there were no recordings and that the only proof was Cohen’s word. When asked for any evidence of the president’s animus towards people of color, Cohen cited that there were no black executives in the Trump Organization.
Besides these headline grabbers, Cohen was kind enough to include amusing details that will earn some chuckles. He claims that Trump ordered him to threaten legal action against the president’s high school and college if they released his records or grades without his permission. Also, that contrary to the president’s claim, he did not suffer from bone spurs and willingly avoided the Vietnam War draft. Finally, Cohen says that Trump often told people that his son Donald Trump Jr. “had the worst judgment of anyone in the world.”
Cohen ended his statement by personally thanking Cummings, Adam Schiff, and Nancy Pelosi.
Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.), in her questioning of Cohen, attempted to pull the narrative back towards Russian collusion. Claiming that Russia had “weaponized” Hillary Clinton’s emails and that the Trump campaign was “filthy with Russian connections,” Wasserman Shultz pressed Cohen to admit to any kind of election tampering. He demurred, repeating his earlier statements that he was unaware of any collusion.
The rest of the hearing meandered on with both parties passing the baton in questioning Cohen. “We have brought this committee to its knees in terms of its credibility,” said Jody Hice (R-GA). Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said Cohen was a “pathological liar,” while Massie questioned whether he possessed a conscience. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) asked Cohen to give advice to young people about the consequences of dishonesty, while many Republicans including Jordan, Clay Higgins (R-La.), and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) repeatedly asked Cohen if he had any book deals in the works.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Mahoney (D-N.Y.) called the whole Cohen arc “a story of redemption.”
Despite the media attention and the desire for a smoking gun, Cohen’s testimony is uncorroborated hearsay from an unreliable source. Even his most excitable allegations, if somehow proven true, do not violate federal law.
In three months, Michael Cohen will be in jail, and Donald Trump will be negotiating an end to the Korean War. Which news story should really be getting the nation’s concentration?
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.